Previous experiments have shown that college students benefit when they understand that challenges in the transition to college are common and improvable and, thus, that early struggles need not portend a permanent lack of belonging or potential. Could such an approach-called a lay theory intervention-be effective before college matriculation? Could this strategy reduce a portion of racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic achievement gaps for entire institutions? Three double-blind experiments tested this possibility. Ninety percent of first-year college students from three institutions were randomly assigned to complete single-session, online lay theory or control materials before matriculation (n > 9,500). The lay theory interventions raised first-year full-time college enrollment among students from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds exiting a high-performing charter high school network or entering a public flagship university (experiments 1 and 2) and, at a selective private university, raised disadvantaged students' cumulative first-year grade point average (experiment 3). These gains correspond to 31-40% reductions of the raw (unadjusted) institutional achievement gaps between students from disadvantaged and nondisadvantaged backgrounds at those institutions. Further, follow-up surveys suggest that the interventions improved disadvantaged students' overall college experiences, promoting use of student support services and the development of friendship networks and mentor relationships. This research therefore provides a basis for further tests of the generalizability of preparatory lay theories interventions and of their potential to reduce social inequality and improve other major life transitions.
Keywords: behavioral science; field experiment; inequality; lay theories; social psychology.